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Tuesday, Mar 18 2014 06:52 PM

Office pools surge as NCAA Tournament begins

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    By AP Photo/Skip Peterson

    North Carolina State forward Kyle Washington dunks past Xavier center Matt Stainbrook (40) during the first half of a first-round game of the NCAA college basketball tournament, Tuesday, March 18, 2014, in Dayton, Ohio.

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    By AP Photo/Al Behrman

    Mount St. Mary's guard Julian Norfleet, left, and Albany forward Luke Devlin chase a loose ball in the first half of a first-round game of the NCAA college basketball tournament, Tuesday, March 18, 2014, in Dayton, Ohio.

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BY JASON KOTOWSKI Californian staff writer jkotowski@bakersfield.com

March Madness, with its attendant hysteria, is upon us.

NCAA Tournament brackets are being filled, scratched out and refilled with an urgency and intensity usually reserved for war. Hardcore fans debate whether to go with their heart and put their favorite team winning one game more than reasonably expected, or use emotionless logic and statistics to pare down the teams to the one most expected to win the championship.

Most people probably use a combination of both. Or fill out multiple brackets and have it both ways.

But if they're doing it in an office pool, it's gambling, and that's against the law.

Bakersfield police Sgt. Joe Grubbs said penalties can range from an infraction to a felony, depending on the amount of times a person's been convicted and the type of gaming involved.

Still, employers can most likely rest easy they won't be raided. Grubbs said it's a difficult law to enforce, and most gaming arrests they make occur on the street.

"If we're somehow made aware of it, we would respond and investigate like we do all types of crimes," Grubbs said.

It's not just law enforcement; the NCAA also frowns at the practice.

"Fans should enjoy following the tournament and filling out a bracket just for the fun of it, not on the amount of money they could possibly win," reads a page on the NCAA's website.

That hasn't prevented office pools from becoming a time-honored tradition, and a very public one at that.

The Wall Street Journal published an article Monday titled "3 Ways to Win Your NCAA Office Pool." The International Business Times ran a story about tournament favorites and betting in office pools, even including a printable bracket online.

Part of the appeal of participating in an office pool may lie in the thrill of doing something considered relatively harmless but still illegal, and knowing there likely won't be repercussions. And a small part of it probably involves winning money, but for the most part office pools don't involve big bucks (unless your boss is Warren Buffet).

The nation's employers, however, stand to lose quite a bit in terms of productivity during the tournament.

Outplacement company Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. calculated that the tournament could cost employers $1.2 billion nationally for every unproductive work hour during the first week of the tournament. They arrived at that number based on a Microsoft survey that found an estimated 50 million Americans are expected to participate in March Madness office pools, plus the most recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showing average hourly earnings of $24.31.

"While March Madness distractions may not alter the nation's quarterly GDP numbers, you can be assured that department managers and network administrators notice the effect on work output and company-wide (I)nternet speeds," John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, said in a news release.

But the relatively slight decline in worker productivity in each office is easily offset by the increased morale built by participation in these pools, said Doug Hartmann, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota.

Hartmann said he thinks the main appeal of the office pool lies in the camaraderie it creates among employees. It's fun, there are no huge consequences and it's outside the normal workday interaction.

"We sometimes talk about sport as a 'focus gathering,' a way for people to come together in an activity that builds upon the social ties and connections you've got, whether in an office or family or in a dorm setting," Hartmann said.

The people getting in trouble with these types of things, whether it's office problems or gambling issues, tend to be men obsessed with sports. Those who can keep sports in perspective, Hartmann said, won't lose much time over it and will receive the rewards of socializing.

So, to sum up: Office pools are illegal, but you're unlikely to get caught. They hurt workplace productivity, but increase morale. And, they're fun and rewarding, unless you obsess over them, in which case you could be headed for trouble. Got that?

And yes, Florida looks unbeatable. But hedge your bets. Get to work on that second bracket.

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